» Journalismbeyond words

In an ongoing series of articles on sound design in documentaries, Peter Albrechtsen focuses on the sensuous sound design of one of last year’s most acclaimed documentaries, Dirty Wars. The film’s sound designer discusses how the ears can be a gateway to an emotional and cinematic experience in a journalistic documentary. 


noun ər-nəəli-zəm

the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

This definition of journalism from the dictionary says it all – journalism is pretty much all about words: the words of people who are interviewed, the words of the journalist and of course the words the editor decides to use. Words both spoken and written.

Journalistic documentaries have a long and proud tradition in the annals of film history and of course, journalistic documentaries are also very much focused on words. Words have been the foundation of many excellent documentaries throughout the years and will continue to be so for years to come. At the same time, though, during the last couple of decades documentaries have quite often become more and more cinematic, more visual, more atmospheric and less based on words, strict dramaturgy and classic journalistic ideas.

The extraordinary thing about the award-winning Dirty Wars – it’s just been nominated for an Oscar – is the way it combines a journalistic investigation with a very cinematic approach to filmmaking. Usually it’s hard to make a documentary very visual and atmospheric when the story is based on interviews but this American documentary film successfully balances between lots of verbal information and abstract ambiences.

One of its really strong points is the evocative soundtrack, and the sound designer, Christopher Barnett, agrees that the film has a quite special approach: “Yes, it doesn’t really follow the typical documentary rules to a large extent. It’s cut more like a film noir detective story where we are very much in the headspace of the main character.”

Barnett is part of the staff at what is often hailed as the world’s leading sound facility, Skywalker Sound, in Northern California. The place is famous for the iconic sound design on blockbuster classics like all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies but at the same time it also does a lot of work on independent productions, both fiction films and documentaries.

Barnett has been part of both types of film and is evidently extremely talented in both departments – “it’s the balance that I enjoy”. His work on other award-winning documentaries like Inequality for All and Bully is also very impressive and Barnett’s enthusiasm for these kind of films is evident: “Often they are important sociologically as well as educational, which fundamentally is the importance of film: to educate and bring important issues to light.”

Dirty Wars surely is a very important film. Based on Nation journalist Jeremy Scahill’s extensive research on the ground in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, Dirty Wars goes well beyond the euphoria that greeted Navy SEAL Team 6 when it took out Osama bin Laden. The movie chronicles years of secret White House-authorized attacks, along with their distressing collateral damage. Written by David Riker and Scahill, the film follows Scahill as he unpeels the layers of JSoc, Joint Special Operations Command. This powerful covert military outfit answers directly – and only – to the President, and its manoeuvres in the Middle East have left several civilians dead. The film is narrated by Scahill, and his voiceover – co-written by Riker – becomes increasingly despairing upon his realization that the global war on terror is poised to remain endless.

Not words you should hear,

but words you should feel.

Dirty Wars from my perspective was really about the battle going on in Jeremy’s head”, Barnett says. “In many parts of the film we transition from pure documentary style to a more stylized view of his reality, his perspective, and his thoughts. I actually spent a fair amount of time making washy layers using the production sound as well as slowed traffic and bits and pieces from the score.”

Barnett notes that director Rick Rowley, who was also cinematographer and picture editor on the film, was very much a part of the sound process all the way, which also explains why the sound seems like such an integrated storytelling tool: “I had a pretty free rein going in to the edit to do what felt right, but Rick was very hands on during the process. The more in Jeremy’s head we could get the more he liked it, so I just kept plugging away until he told me to stop or we were off track.” And that wasn’t the only advantage of having the director right there: “Since he had the whole movie in the computer he could go fishing for a dialogue line or an ambience he remembered and we would put it right in the mix and move on. For documentaries in particular, I like to use a sound library as little as possible, and try to use production as much as possible – even if its sonically inferior, it is superior in authenticity. For Dirty Wars, they had recorded tons of sound and we mined that as much as possible.”

Actually, Rowley wasn’t the only director that had an influence on the soundtrack – Barnett also references his earlier work with Michael Mann as a major inspiration.“My part was making Dirty Wars quite thick sonically, using theatrical Hollywood style sound pressure levels with surrounds and low frequency material for weight. While working in Los Angeles with Michael Mann on an HBO series called Luck, I had learned a lot from Michael about drama and what is important for a scene to work on a basic level, which was an experience for me, so I pretty much came off of that show in a more dramatic headspace than normal, I guess. I wanted the film to be from Jeremy’s point of view, drifting in and out of clarity to confusion, seeing the problem through his eyes. Sometimes he is only really listening to his own mind ticking over, that is what I thought might work quite well.”

This feeling of the main character listening is mandatory. Jeremy really uses his ears and a wonderfully evocative element of the soundtrack is the use of abstract voices in several sequences – you can’t really tell if it’s Jeremy hearing himself or if it’s the voices of the many people he meets. It’s like words flowing through the air and not words you should hear, but words you should feel, which makes it even clearer that Dirty Wars is not a classic journalistic documentary. Barnett says that “some of the voices I made and some others were from the composer David Harrington, recorded at the Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco. They definitely got jumbled up in there but seem to work out ok.”

Harrington is violinist and founder of the highly acclaimed Kronos Quartet and their work is also a major contributor to the film’s extraordinary intensity. Actually, the sound and music blends together in very musical way. Barnett is a big fan of Kronos. “When I found out they were scoring this film I was anxious but also thought it could be amazing, which in fact it is. During our first mix period, we took a day off and Rick and the producer Anthony Arnove went into San Francisco and re-scored against a temp mix that I had done that had some of the design already baked in. Since I had used the original Kronos temp music to make layers it was already in the right musical key to match the score, so that worked out good, and of course after we came back I used the newer music to make other layers with the new cut.”

“I have to say that the music was wonderful to work against as it was already tonal in many ways and being able to match the background ambiences and vehicles for pitch against the music was very helpful and hopefully made them stick together more. I certainly didn’t want it to be easy to know where sound design ended and music began, I was fairly convinced that if the music becomes too separated the audience will know it, even if they don’t know why.”

One of Barnett’s favourite sequences had actually no sound effects, but only voice and music: “It’s right at the very end when the film is silent apart from the music with Jeremy’s voiceover”, Barnett clarifies. It may sound simple but was anything but: “It took a lot of time to get right, as I had actually held Jeremy’s dialogue level back a little bit all through the whole film so I could push it right at the end. Also he has a little more low end in his voice to make the audience feel his dialogue rather that just hear it, especially on a couple of lines – that also took a while to get right. The intention was to get it as emotional as possible and several times I was tearing up – then I knew it was working.”

Dirty Wars: a journalistic documentary – but in an intense emotional way. Quite a feat._


Directed by Richard Rowley,

USA, 2012, 87 min

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